Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Ken Dolgner never got see what his son Steve did to his 1937 Ford pickup. Chances are, he would have loved the truck, but he probably wouldn’t have recognized it.
Ken passed away in 2003, but the ratty truck he bought 50-some years ago is alive and rocking the streets thanks to the efforts of Steve Dolgner, who turned an ambitious dream into a spectacular home-grown custom.
“He passed away, I told my sister and my brother at the time, I only want two things: I want his deer rifle, and I want that truck,” chuckles Dolgner, a resident of Westfield, Wis.
The ’37 Ford was apparently already on its way to being a street rod by the time the elder Dolgner got ahold of it in the late 1960s. It took about five decades for it to ever become a finished product, however. For many years, the Ford’s prospects appeared pretty bleak.
“It took my dad a couple years to get it back to road worthy. It looked like a started hot rod when he purchased it,” Steve recalls. “Then he got it back to road worthy and things happened, the motor blew up in it or whatever, and it was left sitting. And then his job changed and we ended up moving … He started a body shop, and of course you don’t have time to work on your own stuff when you are running a body shop, so it sat out in the weather for about 30 years.
“I just remember laying on the hood sanding on it when it was sitting outside my dad’s shop and going, ‘Dad why don’t we fix this? Why don’t we get this going? It would be so cool!” And he had it set up with Chevy running gear at the time and I said, ‘It’s a Ford, we need to put Ford running gear in it! And he said, ‘Ah, I don’t have time to work on that now.’
Steve could relate to the time constraints years later when he got the truck and had to put his hot rod dreams on hold while real life and fatherhood intervened.
“It was really rough. It was sitting outside, and the building it sat next to was all fire damaged so it was all burned on one side, too,” he recalled. “So then I took ownership of it and I just stored it a buddy’s place because I lived in town and didn’t have a place to work on it. I had kids in school, no time, sports and everything else.
“When my son graduated from high school is when I started to work on it. I’d bring a fender home and work on it for a weekend. Then bring another fender home and it was one piece at a time until I ended up bringing the whole thing home. Then it was getting a chassis to fit under it. The original suspension and everything was all rotted out and broken and or missing.”
The image of a finished product that Dolgner had floating around his head and on many sketches at his kitchen would require a lot of custom sheet metal work and a huge helping of trial and error. It helps that he had worked for years with his dad in a body shop, “never a full-on custom to this level. It was a lot on the plate at once, so I really had to break it down and go one step at a time.”
He started by salvaging what he could from the original truck. That included the cab, front fenders, parts of the running boards, headlights, and a few interior pieces. Everything underneath came from other vehicles, and the box was all custom made by Steve and his wife. The front suspension came from a 2001 Ford Ranger. The rear suspension was salvaged from a 2001 Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer. The 302-cid V-8, bored .040 over and fitted with Crower cam, Edelbrock intake, Holly 600 carburetor and Black Hugger headers, is “from 1968, but I don’t know what it came out of.”
“[It was] 5½ years of fabricating and body work. When it was my dad’s, the rear fenders are the same fenders he had. The running boards are about half original, the other half are fabricated because they were so rusted-out. The cab and the doors forward are all original. The is new floors and new rocker panels, and the doors were rotted all the way up to about [halfway], so that’s a new skin there and the lower cowls are new. Basically I started with the cab forward and rear fenders. The box was in pretty rough shape, so I just fabricated a whole new box. A ‘37 would have had louvers in the hood like a lot of ‘30s cars did, and I didn’t like that look, so I just cut it out and made scoops.
“I shaved the cowl vent which meant I shaved the dash also because this year truck could have had a crank-out windshield with a turning handle. I got rid of that. I built the visor from scratch because nobody makes ‘em for this. They didn’t have visors on these trucks originally … but it came out really nice.
“I bought an aftermarket radiator for it because obviously the old one was in disrepair, so I shaved the cap that would have been on this grille shell. Then I put a ’35 coupe front bumper on it, it hung tight and kind of matched and had a nice little sweep to it. I made my own brackets and cleaned it up and shortened it.”
Subtle and very cool touches abound everywhere on the truck. It’s so clean and understated you almost miss much of the clever custom detailing, like the hand-formed visor that looks like a factory item, the study center console that was originally part of a Model T running board, and the low-mounted tail lights that are shaped like Ford ovals. One of Dolgner’s coolest tricks was turning the rear window in the cab into a power sliding unit. “I stole that [idea] from somebody up at the Back to the 50’s show in Minnesota,” he laughs.
Only trained eyes will be able to identify the 1940 GM front turn signals mounted on either side of the grille. “I thought they kind of looked good for the era,” Dolgner adds.
When it came time to choose a paint scheme, Dolgner kicked around a few different ideas before finally settling on the blue-over-silver combination. “The paint company that I liked to use and they had a bunch of colors and I believe this is what they call dark metallic blue. This was what they offered, and I thought that was a nice color. And they had this silver, and I thought that would look nice together. But what really sealed the deal was when I was stripping it down this the last color I found on it was dark royal blue, so this truck came from the factory dark blue. I said that’s cool, we’ll go blue and I like blue and my wife’s favorite color is blue. It took just over 5 years to build the truck but it took 5 days to paint the truck because it was all painted in pieces. It was paint something half silver, then mask and then paint blue. Lots and lots of work… I’d have liked the paint to lay down a little bit flatter. But I didn’t pick up a paint gun for 20 years before I painted, so I guess it’s OK.”
The box is a work of art unto itself. It measures just 30 inches across on the inside and was all cooked up in Dolgner’s noggin. It sits between a pair of 1946 Ford pickup rear fenders and is finished with a clever hinged tonneau cover. The black walnut bed probably looks better than any truck bed that ever left a Ford factory.
“I always wanted black walnut in it, and a guy I knew said, ‘I’m going to be cutting down some trees and I told him I needed to buy some lumber. Well, that all fell through and the buddy where I was storing it at, I was complaining to him about it and he just kind of smiled. And I said, ‘What are you smiling about?” He said I’ve got like four black walnut logs laying right over there.’ So I had the lumber all custom sawed and my uncle is kind of a woodworking fanatic, and he helped get all the wood planed down and custom fitted for it. Then I fabricated the whole box and the lid and the whole interior, did all the bead rolling. The bead rolling on the lid, my wife helped me with that. That was kind of a two-person operation.”
As tip-to-tail custom trucks go, Dolgner’s truck is definitely on the classy, low-key side. It’s very clean all around, has an understated color scheme.
He says it rides almost as good as it looks, too … kind of a rat rod-meets-modern Ford feeling. Just plan to enjoy a lot of fresh air and frequent stops if you ride along with him.
“It runs like a dream. It’s got about 2,500 miles on it. It runs beautiful. It’s a little harder on fuel than I anticipated [laughs],” he says. “It is a very cramped compartment, so long rides are not fun. You definitely want to sit down and look at the map and plan a route where you can stop for fuel or stop for a soda every 40 minutes or so is when you want to get out. Running interstate speed is like 3500 on the RPMs, so you’re sucking fuel like crazy and it’s a hot rod, it’s kind of loud. Conversation on the interstate isn’t easy, we’ll just say that. I don’t have air conditioning, so you’re doing 75 mph with the windows and down and you just don’t talk to the person next to you.”
Dolgner rolls his eyes when he thinks back to all the struggles and time it took to get the truck to this point. There were plenty of times when he considered giving up, but hot rod builders never seem to do things the easy way. He kept the dream alive, and kept the wrenches turning.
“I always had a vision for this truck, from the time I was a little kid,” he says. “I always saw it done, and it’s very, very close to what I had envisioned.”
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